published 'Dark Dreams' 1990
I fell in love with the picture as soon as I had entered the room. Strangely enough, it was the frame that first attracted me (because there were several other artefacts in its vicinity vying for my attention); it trailed golden vine leaves between studs of even deeper, finer gold. Evidently wood, but spiritually real gold. Gorgeous marginalia, true, but nothing compared .......
Once drawn into the actual canvas itself, I was enchanted by a little mid-Victorian girl playing by a stream, with a hoop leaning against her - but no way could she have bowled it across the rutted field towards the archetypal thatched cottage where her mother beckoned her to come in. A dusk scene, presumably, but above all its intrinsic charm was quite inexplicable: maybe it was the red flowers spotting the girl's pinafore or the twined green tendrils curling like eels from between her feet towards the mother or the fact I thought I could actually listen to the gurgling stream.
I acquired the painting with the house and, luckily, the vendor did not add much to the asking price to cover it. She was a lady of advanced years retreating, she said, to her daughter's to while away the evening of her life and, so, had no room for such a large painting.
"You sure your daughter won't want it?" I asked mock-concernedly for I could not bear the idea that I might lose such a potential prize.
"No, dear, she's never been a lover of this particular painting."
When you live with someone for a long time, you begin to discover traits and quirks that you did not even begin to suspect during the earliest honeymoon days. It's only the test of time that will reveal if those changes (each one small in itself, but taken as a whole may well represent a complete sea change) can mature into something that you can continue to love and cherish or whether they are ingredients that will eventually turn the whole meal into a mess of stinking offal
As with a person, so with that painting.
The mother by the cottage door was in a patch of deepening shadow, I noticed. I could have sworn that when I first cast my eyes upon the canvas, the face had been lit up by the horizontal beams of the setting sun. But now the sun was vaguely further behind the trees, I thought. The girl's face was now infinitesimally nearer to the surface of the stream as if to catch her own reflection before the light finally faded. Her hoop was not a hoop at all! It appeared to be more like a brown snake, thicker on one side of the circle, thinner at the other, like an endless ingrowing whip. The red dots on her pinafore was some substance seeping from the flesh...
I must not give the wrong impression. It was only over a long period that such changes emerged. I would get up in the middle of the night, not being able to sleep or because I had been fitfully dreaming of the eventual end result of the painting if I didn't do something about it. I would storm downstairs, only to be relieved to see that it was not as bad as I thought.
But it was always slightly different every time I looked at it. Until I could imagine that the vines of the frame were beginning to implicate co-existence with their cousin tendrils in the picture.
The girl became more aligned with the dark stream, more like an unwholesome, unnatural beast than a human, her flesh flowing as one with it.
The mother was nothing but a stain of darkness or had she gone in, shutting the door after her, despairing of her daughter ever returning from her twilight play?
And when the moon came out, I turned its face to the wall.
If anyone visits me (and the visits of my many friends who used to flock to my social events in my younger days had now begun to tail off, as they often do when you get older), but, if anyone did come, they would question me about the painting with its back to the room.
And I would tell them that it was none of their business! I would play the grand piano loudly to stop them hearing the gurgling tinnitus in my ears.